“. . . it is enough to frighten me into paying more attention. . .” (Billy Collins)

“. . . these small leaves, these sentinel thorns, whose employment it is to guard the rose. . .”

“. . . these small leaves, these sentinel thorns, whose employment it is to guard the rose. . .”

Holy Week and Easter Day are over for this year. I attended almost as many Holy Week services as I used to do as a matter of course. I played the organ at a church on Maundy Thursday. I attended “my” church (St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal) for the Saturday Easter Vigil, and I played for the two small services in the chapel there on Easter morning.

Nothing but the music matters to me—the impossible words of the creeds, the sermons about Jesus rising from the dead, the acclamations, “The Lord is Risen Indeed, Alleluia!”—in the services for which I play. It’s all about the music.

The 1500-or-so-year-old Easter Vigil liturgy used to affect me both emotionally and intellectually. But for the past few years it hasn’t because I’ve come to the same conclusion Roz Kaveney describes in an opinion piece in The Guardian:

The idea that texts written in a specific time and social context in human, often poetic, language with clear artistic intent can be the inerrant declaration of the mind of an eternal god depends on a leap of faith so vast that many of us cannot make it.

Until recently the Vigil liturgy remained for me one of the “thin places” described by Marcus Borg.

A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened. They are places where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts and we behold (the “ahaah of The Divine”)….all around us and in us (Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2004).

Last year at Easter time I wrote about “thin places.” In the Easter Vigil Service this year the times I had the sense of a “thin” place were during the choir’s singing a Palestrina motet. And when James Diaz played the “Finale” from Louis Vierne’s First Organ Symphony after the service.

Having arrived at age 70, I have better things to worry about than religion and the final disposal of my immortal soul. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. . .” is no longer a thin place for me. My guess is that on Good Friday this year Kentucky Christians felt they had been buried in a death like the Wildcats’, and on Easter Monday many North Carolina Christians felt they had been united in a resurrection like the Blue Devils’—felt it at a deeper and more significant level than they felt Christ’s death and resurrection, whatever they said on Easter morning.

That is not a judgment, simply an observation.

I can’t any longer live in the tension of believing religion is a “thin place” and at the same time knowing Palestrina’s counterpoint (my own private March Madness), not the words that ride on it, is touching my heart. It’s not because I’m so good, or so smart, or so wise, but because I have so little time left to become rigorously honest with myself.

I’m still, nearly 50 years later, one of Spiro Agnew’s “effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” Except that I’m no intellectual. Smart, somewhat educated, minimally talented, but not an intellectual. Just part of the effete corps.

Not being any more intellectual than I am is probably fortunate for me. If I had any more ability to figure things out, I’d be in BIG trouble. I can’t figure “it” out, so the best I can do is try to be consistent and direct in what I think and do.

In one corner of my mind is certain knowledge that the moment I die, I will be dead. So dead that I won’t even know I’m dead or that I used to be alive. That corner of my mind tells me there’s no point worrying about how I live the 8.4 years the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control says I have left. If the end result—the end—is the same, what does it matter how I live?

Here’s the crazy thing (seems crazy to me). I used to think I would leave behind a legacy of music or poetry or the Great American Novel. Just the same as everyone reading this believes deep down they will be the next member of the club of billionaires.

Both my thinking and everyone else’s—is wacko. It ain’t gonna happen.

So what is going to happen? I don’t have a clue. But I have a growing sense that, besides continuing to thrive in the love of my family and friends, the only way to make sense of this screeching-to-a-halt life is to throw myself into work I didn’t even know was possible a year ago.

Tutoring athletes at SMU’s center for the Academic Development of Student Athletes and teaching an ESL preparation class at the Aberg Center for Literacy give me a sense of purpose different, almost certainly greater, than I have ever had. Is that a touch of the drama queen? Yes, but these two activities are in a way redeeming the work I’ve been doing since 1985. I’ve been practice teaching to prepare myself to do something for reasons far greater than for my own satisfaction.

Perhaps I have finally found the real “thin places.”

For most of my adult life I have struggled with the words of St. Paul the Apostle that, “. . . the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:19, NRSV). I don’t have to mix that up with sin and Jesus and churchy stuff. I think anyone who has any consciousness of self would have to admit that’s true. It is what it is.

So I want to learn, to have the peace of knowing, that the good I would, I do. And the evil I would not, I don’t. That’s all.

“The First Night,” by Billy Collins (b. 1941)

“The worst thing about death must be
the first night.” —Juan Ramón Jiménez

Before I opened you, Jiménez,
it never occurred to me that day and night
would continue to circle each other in the ring of death,

but now you have me wondering
if there will also be a sun and a moon
and will the dead gather to watch them rise and set

then repair, each soul alone,
to some ghastly equivalent of a bed.
Or will the first night be the only night,

a darkness for which we have no other name?
How feeble our vocabulary in the face of death,
How impossible to write it down.

This is where language will stop,
the horse we have ridden all our lives
rearing up at the edge of a dizzying cliff.

The word that was in the beginning
and the word that was made flesh—
those and all the other words will cease.

Even now, reading you on this trellised porch,
how can I describe a sun that will shine after death?
But it is enough to frighten me

into paying more attention to the world’s day-moon,
to sunlight bright on water
or fragmented in a grove of trees,

and to look more closely here at these small leaves,
these sentinel thorns,
whose employment it is to guard the rose.

Billy Collins was born in New York City on March 22, 1941. He is the author of several books of poetry, including Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (Random House, 2013), Horoscopes for the Dead: Poems (Random House, 2012); Ballistics: Poems (2008); and many more.
Collins’s poetry has appeared in anthologies, textbooks, and a variety of periodicals, including Poetry, American Poetry Review, American Scholar, Harper’s, Paris Review, and The New Yorker.
Collins served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, and as the New York State Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006. His other honors and awards include the Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry, as well as fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He has taught at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, and Lehman College, City University of New York. He lives in Somers, New York.

“. . .Or will the first night be the only night, a darkness for which we have no other name. . .” (Photo by Harold Knight, Port Orford, OR, 2012)

“. . .Or will the first night be the only night, a darkness for which we have no other name. . .” (Photo by Harold Knight, Port Orford, OR, 2012)

“I cannot be trusted to tell them how I am. . .” (Jason Shinder)

A moment of reality or an Old Queen's bling?

A moment of reality or an Old Queen’s bling?

On the last day of the last classes for the course work leading to my PhD (1978), I drove from Iowa City to Cedar Springs and purchased a ring. It cost far more than I should have spent on anything at that juncture—as a poverty stricken graduate student. On the internet rings that look similar to mine run from $300 to $1750.

If mine is worth $1750, I ought to sell it today. I never wear it because the last time I did, a couple of friends made fairly unkind comments about it. The ring looks like either a gangster’s pinky ring or an old queen’s bling. Ostentatious. It’s a large garnet set in high-quality gold. Garnet is my birthstone.

A couple of days ago I found the ring in a box with some other small valuables while sorting through a pile of stuff in the process of cleaning out the detritus of my life (I’m one step and a few dollars away from hiring a “professional home organizer” who specializes in helping old folks downsize.)

Yesterday I changed my Facebook picture (yes, I participate in “social media”). The new picture was taken when I was a senior in college (1966), in the surplice and cassock the choir and organists wore for chapel services at the university. I found it, too, in a pile of stuff I’m sorting. The picture immediately garnered many “likes” and a few comments.

Earlier in the day yesterday, driving home from the fitness center (“Nearer my God to thee,” anyone?) I listened to NPR’s “TED Radio Hour.” It was about “success.” I heard two segments of the program, the last was Guy Raz’s interview with Alain De Botton. His most memorable one-liner was, “We have made in the United States a meritocratic society where success is deserved, but failure is also deserved.”

Before talking to De Botton, Raz interviewed Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” and played clips of his TED talk about success. Yes, I’m a Mike Rowe fan. I’ve said it many times: I’m easily entertained. He’s certainly one of the sexiest men on TV—and I’ve also worked in a place like those where he’s hung out with workers in dirty jobs. I worked at Kaiser Steel in Fontana, CA, for two years, not in a dirty job, but in one of the least healthy environments possible—I can’t imagine what it took to make that huge area ecologically safe when the plant closed. Disposing of the slag heap alone must have been a herculean job.

Talking about some of the people he’s worked with over the last 8 years, Mike Rowe said, “You don’t follow your passion, you

One of the sexiest men on TV

One of the sexiest men on TV

always bring it with you.” He was referring to a PhD former psychologist who was working cleaning out septic tanks, who said he tired of listening to other people’s crap.

“You don’t follow your passion, you always bring it with you.”

Lately I’ve been thinking a great deal about what my passion is.

I write every day. That’s not really a passion, however; it’s a compulsion. Is there a difference? I can (but I don’t let myself) go days on end without playing the organ. When I think about that, I am mystified. I’ve done that all my life (since 1954). I have a pipe organ in my living room. The largest pile of “stuff” I need help sorting is organ music. That 1966 picture of myself is important not least for the professional “costume” I’m wearing.

That TED Radio Hour fascinated me because I do not consider myself to be a “successful” person. I have never written a book (scholarly or otherwise, fiction or non-fiction). I have never played a commercially-recorded organ concert. I’m retired on about $2100 per month. I don’t have a husband. I suppose the list of “I don’t” or “I haven’t” is infinite.

The fact is, I have no “passion” in the terms I think Mike Rowe meant.

I’d love to be a world-famous scholar or fiction writer or concert musician. I really would. I think any one of those would be a kick-ass accomplishment. But I obviously don’t need any of those things, or I’d either have it, or I would have spent my life and my energy trying to get it.

My passion is really quite simple.

I have to insert a disclaimer here. Many years ago I knew a flute player named Kristen Webb. She played a recital at my church in Salem, MA. When we were taking a break from rehearsal, we were chatting about performance, and I mentioned that an organist friend/mentor, Professor Sam Walter of Rutgers University had recently died. I said Sam told me that in performance one enters an “altered state of reality.”

Kristen immediately expanded on that thought, saying that when she performed, she had something of an “out-of-body” experience.

The only moments of performance when I’ve ever been aware of an “altered state of reality” was when I knew I was having a seizure and performed nonetheless. A fairly frequent occurrence until then—Sam died in 1987, and I had begun treatment for seizures only about three years before that.

My passion is really quite simple, and some might think it trivial or even silly.

I want for one moment—longer if possible, but one moment would satisfy me, I think—to know, to be absolutely certain that I understand or feel or experience—I don’t know what the verb should be—without a scintilla of doubt or dissociation or despair the essence (the reality?) of my own existence.

How do a ring, and old photograph, a remembered conversation, a radio program from yesterday pile up to make my reality? Or do they—

Sounds like arrested development, doesn’t it? Teenage angst.

Or the fervent hope and desire of every person 70 years old. And for some of us beginning when we were seven.

“How I Am,” by Jason Shinder (1955–2008)
When I talk to my friends I pretend I am standing on the wings

of a flying plane. I cannot be trusted to tell them how I am.
Or if I am falling to earth weighing less

than a dozen roses. Sometimes I dream they have broken up

with their lovers and are carrying food to my house.
When I open the mailbox I hear their voices

like the long upward-winding curve of a train whistle

passing through the tall grasses and ferns
after the train has passed. I never get ahead of their shadows.

I embrace them in front of moving cars. I keep them away

from my miseries because to say I am miserable is to say I am like them.

Jason Shinder was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1955. He was the founder and director of the YMCA National Writer’s Voice, as well as the director of Sundance Institute’s Writing Program. He taught in the graduate writing programs at Bennington College and the New School University. His awards and fellowships include serving as Poet Laureate of Provincetown, MA, and a 2007 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He divided his time between Provincetown and New York City. Shinder died in April 2008.

One moment of reality

One moment of reality

“Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same. . .” (Mark Strand)

Never. That’s when I was in the peak of physical condition, able to do what I wanted to do and feeling healthy and sexy.

Yep. Never.

And for a gay man, that’s a somewhat sad statement. We’re supposed to ooze sex and health and attractiveness. I guess so other gay men don’t have to think twice about hooking up with us. And life is fun and frolicsome.

I think I’m basically a poet who does not know how to write poetry, so my poems come out in these somewhat (absolutely?) disjointed 1000-word “essays” full of bizarre connections and metaphors and similes and other poetic devices, the names of which I don’t know.

My poem might begin with a grey dawn.

My poem might begin with a grey dawn.

My poem might begin with a gray dawn.

If I can’t write poetry, perhaps I can write about poetry. I want to write a little piece about “Monocle de Mon Oncle” by Wallace Stevens, but it’s long (longer than my attention span can follow), and I don’t have any idea what it “means.”
Here’s the second stanza. I dare anyone to read it and not be simply transfixed by the words, whatever they mean.

A red bird flies across the golden floor.
It is a red bird that seeks out his choir
Among the choirs of wind and wet and wing.
A torrent will fall from him when he finds.
Shall I uncrumple this much-crumpled thing?
I am a man of fortune greeting heirs;
For it has come that thus I greet the spring.
These choirs of welcome choir for me farewell.
No spring can follow past meridian.
Yet you persist with anecdotal bliss
To make believe a starry connaissance.

I’d love to be able to put some words together as mysteriously and exquisitely (I think I have never typed “exquisitely” before) as Stevens did. Even if neither I nor anyone else knew what they meant.

The “About” page in the masthead on this blog says,

This is a light-hearted look at my experience of getting old (I’m 69). I’m a (soon-to-be-retired) college professor. You can read more about me at my very serious blog, http://sumnonrabidus.wordpress.com/
I will post silly stuff I find elsewhere, and I will write original stuff. I will tell stories and expound my opinions. So, welcome aboard.

It’s a lie in at least two ways. I’m not a “soon-to-be-retired” college professor. I am officially retired (ask Medicare). And I very seldom post silly stuff, either my stuff or stuff I’ve ripped-off from someone with a more obvious sense of humor than I have. (Unless, of course, all of my stuff is silly.)

I do tell stories and expound my own opinions. Seldom do either seem to be light-hearted. As it happens, when my thoughts about getting older materialize, they are seldom “light-hearted.” Here’s where I’d like to be a poet. I’d like to be able to express my not-light-hearted thoughts about aging without sounding as if my thoughts are depressed or dark. I’d say they’re pensive or earnest or sober—like my general personality. That’s not exactly what I mean, either. Anyone who knows me well would say that, if my ideas are like my general personality, they will at least lean toward the depressive. However, it is possible to be depressed and think in a way that is not depressed. I suppose that seems like a logical impossibility, but it’s not.

I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets.
I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road.
At night I turn back the clocks;
I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.

I wouldn’t be so bold as to say I know what Mark Strand’s poem “means.” Mark Strand is a Canadian-born American poet, born 1934. He has received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and was appointed Poet Laureate 1990. He is, by the way, 80 years old and still teaching at Columbia University.

I empty my pockets, too. I’m trying to divest myself of the stuff of my life that is no longer meaningful—all that stuff in my pockets that I might as well pitch. And that includes even some people who are not good for me. I don’t know about turning back the clocks. I have little desire to be young again—but I do open the family albums and look at myself as a boy. Trying to put my mind at ease about how I came to be the man I am.

A blog I found looking for information on him says Mark Strand is one of the 10 manliest poets. Wallace Stevens is on that list, too. I think the blogger guy has a problem with his own manliness. I don’t have such a problem. Because I don’t know what “manliness” is. If I don’t know what the Second Law of Thermal Dynamics is, how can I have a problem with it?

I don’t suppose “manliness” has much to do with the physical. I don’t have to worry about never having been “in the peak of physical condition, able to do what I wanted to do and feeling healthy and sexy.” Even in order to be attractive to other gay men.

And I don’t need to worry about being “manly” (or write a blog in which I list my ten nominees for manliest poet—does that strike anyone else as a sad enterprise?).

I would indeed find it strange—ironic? (probably not in the actual literary sense of the word), lightening of heart—to discover here in my incipient old age that I’ve known myself, my “manliness,” my (in)ability to write poetry, all of those things that used to perplex me.

Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.

My poem might begin with a radiantly blue morning glory.

My poem might begin with a radiantly blue morning glory.

My poem might begin with a radiantly blue morning glory.

“The Remains,” by Mark Strand
I empty myself of the names of others. I empty my pockets.
I empty my shoes and leave them beside the road.
At night I turn back the clocks;
I open the family album and look at myself as a boy.

What good does it do? The hours have done their job.
I say my own name. I say goodbye.
The words follow each other downwind.
I love my wife but send her away.

My parents rise out of their thrones
into the milky rooms of clouds. How can I sing?
Time tells me what I am. I change and I am the same.
I empty myself of my life and my life remains.

Mark Strand was born on Canada’s Prince Edward Island on April 11, 1934. He received a BA degree from Antioch College in Ohio in 1957 and attended Yale University. In 1962 he received his MA degree from the University of Iowa. He is the author of numerous collections of poetry. He served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1990 to 1991. He is 80 years old and teaches English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

 

“. . . How to find my soul a home. . .” (Maya Angelou)

Maya AngelouYesterday I was hoping to come across a poem or an essay or a witty saying someone else wrote to quote as my idea for the day, so I could forget this nonsense of trying say what I need to say. (I began this writing yesterday, but I realized only this morning that I already knew the words I was looking for).

I live (we all live) in conundrums. Riddles that cannot be solved. Sometimes the riddle can be solved with a play on words. Sometimes not. Here’s my conundrum for yesterday.

If Ann and I had remained married and she had not died, today would have been our 47th wedding anniversary. We were divorced shortly after our 8th anniversary, and Ann died in 2002. I am grateful we did not divorce from our relationship, only from our marriage. In my bedroom I use the bureau she and I bought together at an antique store 45 years ago. From where I sit at my computer, I can see a box of her family’s photographs on a shelf of my roll-top desk. The desk belonged to my partner Jerry who died a year after Ann, and who had become great friends with Ann—I carried a slight resentment for a long time that in 1997 when she came to visit us in Dallas, they went off to see Titanic together while I was at choir rehearsal.

I am NOT a pack rat or a hoarder. (People with addictive personalities do not know how to sort—a little known secret about us drunks.) Even when I figure out how to sort out all the stuff in my place (I won’t say the stuff I own, simply the stuff that’s here) so that when I die my nieces and nephew won’t have to bring in a backhoe to clean the place out, I will still most likely have my little collections. A rosary Ann gave me when we were Anglo Catholics, four buttons and a broach of her grandmother’s, a pair of rings we bought for each other and a Jerusalem cross all made with jade, a Canadian $5 bill I brought home in my pocket from her funeral, her mother’s watch, a gold chain with a St. Christopher’s medal I gave her, and her wedding ring (I don’t have my own)—a tiny part of my collection. Does anyone want a cloisonné butterfly?

So yesterday we would have been married 47 years.

Apparently one way I try to hold onto the people I love is to hold onto things they owned. This is not so unusual, of course (see Tim O’Brien’s, “The Things they Carried” for a moving expression of the way “things” are important to memory).

Things

Things

As usual, my memory of one part of my life is entrée to writing about another. A couple of days ago a friend took me to dinner to propose an enormous writing project for us to work on. It has to do with memory, with our collective memory with a large community of mutual friends and acquaintances. It will be difficult and lengthy. It will entail a range of feeling and experience I almost certainly cannot express. It will involve thinking and writing about people whose lives we need to hold in the dual reality of the present and of memory. We do not have “the things they owned” to hold onto. We have only our mutual experience, both in the present and in the past.

Yesterday the poet Maya Angelou died.

When I read about her death, I posted my favorite of her poems on Facebook:

“Alone,” by Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014)

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

I am grateful to Maya Angelou for her many expressions of truth over the years, and for broadening my (our) understanding of the beauty of language and the importance of “essaying” what we think and feel.

This morning I realized what I was trying to say yesterday—to say about Ann, about Jerry, about my friends and a possible writing project, to say about my life so far and about the time I have left—Maya Angelou has already said. What I long to know is

How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone.

Maya Angelou uses Biblical imagery. The Gospel of John records Jesus saying, “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.” And the Gospel of Luke records his saying, “Which of you is a father whose son will ask him for bread and would hand him a stone.”

Bread and water are not “things.”

I don’t know if Maya Angelou thought of herself as a Christian. It doesn’t matter. She understood that finding “water that is not thirsty” and “bread [that] is not a stone” requires understanding

That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Happy Anniversary, Ann. And thank you to Maya Angelou, and Jerry, and YOU— everyone who has helped me to understand I cannot “make it out here alone.”

Even a country can't make it out here alone

Even a country can’t make it out here alone

“It is at the edges that time thins.” (Kay Ryan)

". . . amber suspending attention . . ."

“. . . amber suspending attention . . .”

On January 9, 2014, I wrote a bit about a poem by Kay Ryan. Kay Ryan was Poet Laureate of the Library of Congress 2008-2010. She’s also a lesbian, not that that makes any difference one way or the other. It just obviously makes me feel a special kinship with her. No, we’re not elitists or exclusivists or anything like that. And we’re not in a conspiracy to take over the world. Don’t be ridiculous. Just because you and Neil deGrasse Tyson can wink at each other knowingly when someone says, “It’s not rocket science,” the rest of us can’t assume you’re in some sort of conspiracy to take over the world.

Of course, I wish he were—and you would help him—to end the hoodwinking of so many fundamentalist christians and poor republicans by powerful financial and oil interests to make them believe both evolution and climate change are conspiracies of evil liberals just so the oligarchs can tighten their stranglehold on politics and the economy.

Just see how far off course I can get in the first 144 words of writing.

This started out to be a silly little piece on one of the items on my list of accomplishments before I kick the bucket—I won’t say my “bucket list” because my old buddy Kay might read this and be offended.

One of my first goals in retirement is to jettison the word “just” from my vocabulary—both written and spoken.

“Just” is a harmless little word unless you are using it in Jean-François Lyotard’s (1924-1998) sense of Just Gaming, his 1979 book about the language games we play. (Two observations: Lyotard lived to be only five years older than I am now, the sort of thing I notice with greater regularity every day; and his “language gaming” theory is one of those seminal 20th-century French ideas I somewhat understand, all about how the language we use is much of the time intended to wield whatever power we are personally able to muster over everyone around us.)

I need to ask Grant and Martha if “just” has some regional history or if it’s just one of those (almost) meaningless words that all English-speakers use.

You don’t know Grant and Martha? You’re admitting you don’t know the only really literate social/mass media left in the United States? Well, almost literate. NPR, of course, and specifically Grant and Martha’s show “A Way with Words.” They actually, believe it or not, answer listeners’ questions about etymologies of words. There. How’s that for my being snooty and elitist?

Off on another tangent, I see.

So I was in a very serious mood a couple of days ago (as I seem to have been most of the time here at the experience of letting go of my teaching career) and remembered Kay Ryan’s little poem (she says it’s pretty long for her, which it is).

“The Edges of Time,” by Kay Ryan

I claim a special kinship

I claim a special kinship

It is at the edges
that time thins.
Time which had been
dense and viscous
as amber suspending
intentions like bees
unseizes them. A
humming begins,
apparently coming
from stacks of
put-off things or
just in back. A
racket of claims now,
as time flattens. A
glittering fan of things
competing to happen,
brilliant and urgent
as fish when seas
retreat.

(Kay Ryan. “The Edges of Time.” The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. New York: Grove Press, 2010. This collection won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2011. )

I’m astounded when a great poet makes a simple but magical and powerful image like insects trapped in amber—frozen in time—and then the insects “unseized” when the amber melts. My God, it’s the sort of image you think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Because it’s so obvious only a poet, only Kay Ryan would think of it.

She says, “Time which had been dense and viscous as amber suspending intentions like bees unseizes them.” Time solidified in place like amber, freezing all of my intentions, my desires, my hopes in to be dealt with or realized another day, has suddenly liquefied (as in amber’s original liquid form—tree resin). All of those intentions, desires, hopes are released to be finished now! There, how’s that for a wordy flat-footed explanation of a poetic image? Sorry.

That’s what I was thinking about a couple of days ago sitting at my desk at the university waiting for students to appear for conferences over their last work.

And the whole experience of contemplation was nearly destroyed by my discovery of Ryan’s use of one word. A humming begins, apparently coming from stacks of put-off things or just in back.

Just a few days before I had told my students they need to expunge words such as “biggest,” “best” and (most of all) “very” from their writing. I told them I’ve been in a years-long battle to expunge “just” from my writing. I’ve nearly succeeded in my writing, but in my speech, it just won’t go away.

And then Kay Ryan canonizes it. Just in back of the stacks of things I’ve put off there is a buzzing, beginning to be a hubbub of those bees let loose from the sticky amber. There is a racket of stuff still waiting to be done. That trip to Easter Island. That unwritten book. That last will and testament. That pile of stuff I don’t want anyone to go through when I’m dead (they will be shocked).

claims“A racket of claims now, as time flattens.”

“. . . You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city. . .” (Alberto Rios)

The secret of my happiness

The secret of my happiness

Five years ago I wrote about one of my most formative experiences. I’m writing about it again today because I’ve been thinking about “my last lecture” (everyone remembers the famous one by Professor Randy Pausch at Carnegie-Mellon University—also about five years ago). As I said this morning on Facebook, I ain’t no Randy Pausch, and I ain’t dying (that I know of).

But I have to mark the end of this important part of my life. My “career” if I can call it that. My gainful full-time employment.

If genetics have anything to do with longevity, I’m far from marking the end of my life (my mother died at 92—having survived colon cancer—and my father died at 97—having survived much, including being my father).

Perhaps this will be my last lecture. Probably the only time in my life I will get to deliver the valedictory address. “The secret of happiness?”

Ladies and gentlemen, honored guests,

I have a deep dark secret (except for writing about it in my other blog, of course).

Secretively, I carry a folded twenty dollar bill in my wallet at all times. I cannot, on pain of severe punishment, spend it. It’ is not mine.

It’s not my last hedge against being broke. It is not “mad money.” It is not for emergencies. It is not mine. I cannot, may not, will not ever spend it.

The secret began in Oakland a few years back. I was there for a family visit, staying in a hotel because other out-of-town family filled all the relatives’ spare beds.

I was up at my usual hour (about three hours before anyone else). After the necessary writing time, I needed breakfast and went out. I approached a Denny’s where under normal circumstances I wouldn’t stop. I don’t have elegant or particularly healthy eating habits, but there are limits.

I'll probably always need them, too

I’ll probably always need them, too

I sat in a booth where I could see the waitress’s station—where they poured coffee and did what waitresses do behind the scenes (they were not a mixed-gender “wait staff”—they were waitresses being bossed by the male manager).

My waitress was a small frail woman, apparently the oldest of the group and the shortest, of Asian heritage (obvious both by her appearance and her speech). I watched the other waitresses abuse her. Catty remarks, picking up cups of coffee she had poured for her tables, actually bumping into her trying to make her spill things. She was too old and frail (I suppose she was close to 60—not too old for anything except taking abuse) or gracious to fight back.

Here’s where the story gets tricky. I said the title is “The secret of happiness?” I’m afraid I’ll seem to be looking for praise. I’m afraid someone will think I’m such a nice guy. I’m afraid I’ll seem to be thinking more highly of myself than I ought to think. None of that is true. This is a story about my selfishness, about my desire to be happy—even for five minutes.

When I finished my breakfast, I counted out the exact amount of the check and left it on the table. And then, weighted down a little by my empty coffee cup, I left a $20 bill as a tip—three times the amount of the check. I simply got up and walked out.

I was halfway across the parking lot when I heard, “O Sir, O Sir!” I turned around, and there was the waitress running toward me, frantic. “O Sir, you make mistake. Not twenty dollars.”

“No,” I said, “it’s not a mistake. It’s for you.” “Too much, too much.”

She burst into tears and threw her arms around my neck. She could barely speak but managed “thank you.” I told her she was welcome and simply continued walking. I could not believe how happy I was.

I quote myself from my previous writing about this moment. “At that moment, I decided if that’s all it takes to make me happy, $20 is little enough.”

Since that time I don’t have any idea how many $20 bills I have given to their rightful owners. About one a month I suppose. When I hear people talking about how foolish it is to give panhandlers money, I shrug. Maybe. Probably. I don’t give panhandlers money. I can tell if I pay attention which people asking for money at the 7-11—or at the corner of Ervay and Main or while I’m waiting for the train at Mockingbird Station or anywhere else—probably really need it. Or can I? Is it any of my business? So what if a guy takes my money and buys booze? If he’s an alcoholic, the cruelest thing I can do to him at the moment is to refuse him a drink. If it’s a little lady panhandling for the two or three men across the parking lot, she needs the money to keep them from beating her up.

Most of the time the homeless people I pass on the $20 to need psychiatric care. We force the mentally ill onto the streets and then blame them for the massive gun violence we are willing to put up with in this country to protect our right to carry a gun. They’re not carrying guns.

If a scroungy guy talking to himself in the parking lot of Kroger on Cedar Springs asks for a buck and I give him his twenty and he sits down on the curb and cries, I know pretty much for sure he’s hungry.

I’ve gotten used to getting hugs from dirty, smelly, unsavory characters (and some desperate little old ladies).

I need to be hugged. If I have to pass along a $20 bill that isn’t even mine for a hug, it hardly seems fair. I’m getting the better end of the deal. The secret of my (often momentary in the midst of severe depression) happiness.

“The Cities Inside Us,” by Alberto Ríos, 1952

For a good time. . . .

For a good time. . . .

We live in secret cities
And we travel unmapped roads.

We speak words between us that we recognize
But which cannot be looked up.

They are our words.
They come from very far inside our mouths.

You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city
Inside us, and inside us

There go all the cars we have driven
And seen, there are all the people

We know and have known, there
Are all the places that are

But which used to be as well. This is where
They went. They did not disappear.

We each take a piece

Alberto Alvaro Ríos was born on September 18, 1952, in Nogales, Arizona. He received a BA degree in 1974 and an MFA in creative writing in 1979, both from the University of Arizona. He holds numerous awards, including six Pushcart Prizes in both poetry and fiction, the Arizona Governor’s Arts Award and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Since 1994 he has been Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University in Tempe, where he has taught since 1982. In 2013, Ríos was named the inaugural state poet laureate of Arizona. In 2014.

‘. . . “Of all illusions,” said the man with the tubes up his nostrils, IVs, catheter. . .’

Of all the illusions. . .

Of all the illusions. . .

.

.

.

.

.

I want to be a poet so when I feel the need to call attention to the futility of our communal understanding of what’s good, what’s to strive for, what makes a person happy according to Maslow, what good citizenship means, what makes a person successful, what gives meaning to one’s life—all of those things JumpFly and Slingshot and the Richards Group and LEVELTWO and 180 LA and (most importantly) Campbell Mithun tell us we must experience, have, think, or feel—no one will accuse me of being negative or depressed; rather, everyone will think I’m a genius because I’m so artistic and say things so well, and never get it that I’m really trying to be a latter-day Cassandra or Amos—that I mean everything we strive for is pointless, and we keep day after day fucking up our lives because we think owning the next-generation communications gizmo is going to make us authentic and happy human beings.

“Success is counted sweetest” (112), by Emily Dickinson

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory

As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

(Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R. W. Franklin. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.)

We read stuff like Dickinson’s poem and get exalted pictures in our mind of the poor dying soldier lying on the battlefield thinking about how much better it would have been to have joined the victorious army in their celebration of defeating the enemy, and we get all goose-bumpy about the brilliance of Dickinson’s language, and we totally forget that the teacher who introduced us to Dickinson in high school committed suicide the year after we went off to college to earn our success so we can count it sweet.

We absolutely without reservation believe that

. . . after climbing
exhaustedly up
with pitons and ropes,
[we will] arrive at
last on the plateau
of walking-level-
forever-among-
moss-with-red-blossoms
.

(Hall, Donald. “Tubes.” White Apples and the Taste of Stone. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.)

The other day I was watching a program on TV about the building of the new One World Trade Center. It has now been definitively crowned the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat “height committee.”

All through the program I kept thinking, “What hubris.” Of course, the replacement for the World Trade Center Towers would unquestionably have to be the tallest building. America[ns] could not possibly, under any circumstances be reduced to the same experience

As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

A contrarian thought lodged itself in my mind. “In the great scheme of things, in the reality of the magnitude of the earth, which itself is not even a dot in the galaxy which is one of billions of such swirls of matter in the universe, how can any human take such pride in building something bigger than any other human can build?” I’m not a poet, not a wordsmith. I can’t build an image in the style of either Emily Dickinson or Donald Hall. But what is the point? What is the purpose of building something remarkably tall by human standards and taking pride in it when in reality it is utterly insignificant?

Cambell Mithun Tower - not the tallest by a long shot

Cambell Mithun Tower – not the tallest by a long shot

[Timothy] Johnson [Chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat] said the council had studied [architect David] Childs’ plans for the building, and noted the symbolic height of the spire and the beacon that will shine from it – which is designed as a complement to the light at the top of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. “So conceptually it is definitely, from the architect’s point of view, a major part of the building, and we agreed,” Johnson said.

Ah! I get it. The beacon to complement the beacon at the top of the Statue of (former) Liberty. The ultimate symbol of chauvinism in our absolute conviction that our “purple Host Who took the Flag today Can tell the definition So clear of victory” that we deserve the tallest building. The tallest, most expensive, finest, newest Everything! We will “take [our enemy’s] flag today.”

Remember playing “Capture the Flag” as a kid? Maybe only boy scouts did that, and only those who are now very old. We learned. Take the flag! Defeat the enemy. Kill Al-Qaeda. And why? So we can have success—success as defined by Campbell Mithun. A fine poet may define success differently.

“Tubes,” by Donald Hall

           1

“Up, down, good, bad,” said
the man with the tubes
up his nose, ” there’s lots
of variety…
However, notions
of balance between
extremes of fortune
are stupid—or at
best unobservant.”
He watched as the nurse
fed pellets into
the green nozzle that
stuck from his side. “Mm,”
said the man. ” Good. Yum.
(Next time more basil…)
When a long-desired
baby is born, what
joy! More happiness
than we find in sex,
more than we take in
success, revenge, or
wealth. But should the same
infant die, would you
measure the horror
on the same rule? Grief
weighs down the seesaw,
joy cannot budge it.”

           2

“When I was nineteen,
I told a thirty-
year-old man what a
fool I had been when
I was seventeen.
We were always,’ he
said glancing down, ‘a
fool two years ago.'”

           3

The man with the tubes
up his nostrils spoke
carefully: “I don’t
regret what I did,
but that I claimed I
did the opposite.
If I was faithless
or treacherous and
cowardly, I had
my reasons—but I
regret that I called
myself loyal, brave,
and honorable.”

           4

“Of all illusions,”
said the man with the
tubes up his nostrils,
IVs, catheter,
and feeding nozzle,
“the silliest one
was hardest to lose.
For years I supposed
that after climbing
exhaustedly up
with pitons and ropes,
I would arrive at
last on the plateau
of walking-level-
forever-among-
moss-with-red-blossoms.
But of course, of course:
A continual
climbing is the one
form of arrival
we ever come to—
unless we suppose
that the wished-for height
and house of desire
is tubes up the nose.”

. . . the wished-for height and house of desire. . .

. . . the wished-for height
and house of desire. . .